Believe it or not, the first game ever between Penn State, Pitt was downright cordial
In 1893, Western University of Pennsylvania’s football team made its first visit to “the state college boys" for a charming start to what would become a statewide feud.
The visitors had such a lovely time (despite losing 32-0) that they returned to Pittsburgh with a “warm feeling for the mountain kickers,” according to the Pittsburgh Press.
“We want the Western boys to come again and come often,” The Free Lance, Pennsylvania State College’s student newspaper at the time, wrote after the game.
The Western boys return Saturday for the last foreseeable time as Penn State hosts Pitt for the 100th meeting of a series that has endured, off and on, for 126 years.
On Tuesday, Penn State coach James Franklin sounded hopeful that the rivalry might return someday, though when still remains in question. Penn State essentially has scheduled its nonconference games through 2026, and Athletic Director Sandy Barbour has said that the series might not be renewed until at least 2030.
Franklin even suggested the possibility of playing the game at a neutral site, something the teams did technically in 1900-01 in Bellefonte.
“We could have discussions, but we’ve got to be creative about it,” Franklin said at his weekly press conference. “… It’s got to equally make sense for both parties."
Bitter rivalry: For most of the 20th century, Penn State and Pitt was a proper rivalry, full of bitter games, recruiting spats and fan acrimony. Franklin, who grew up near Philadelphia and spent holidays in Pittsburgh as a kid, acknowledged how intense the fans can be even now.
“Aspects of this game bring out the worst of both fan bases and populations,” Franklin said. “Some people may say that’s good. I don’t know if that’s good. I think we can have a great game without all that stuff.”
Which makes that first meeting all the more remarkable.
The first meeting: Newspaper accounts of the Nov. 6, 1893, game paint a picture of two cordial football programs sharing an affable weekend. According to the Free Lance, Western University of Pennsylvania (Pitt’s precursor name until 1908) met harsh weather but warm fraternity greetings upon arriving.
Because of the weather, the game was delayed from Saturday to Monday. The WUP players lodged at local fraternities over the weekend with, as the Free Lance wrote, “every attention being shown them.” The game marked Penn State’s first at home that season, christening a new 500-seat grandstand with the field’s namesake, Gen. James Beaver, in attendance.
“Western University appeared on the field first and were heartily cheered,” the Free Lance wrote. "Then our boys came running from the main building and received an ovation."
PSU dominated: Penn State dominated the game, which wasn’t a great one. The Free Lance described it alternatively as “intensely interesting" and “horribly fumbling,” with an “utter lack of interference,” as blocking was known then.
The game’s highlight came from Penn State’s Chauncey Stuart, who returned a kick 70 yards for a touchdown, after which the crowd “presented an almost indescribable scene for a minute or two,” the Free Lance wrote.
“The strong point of the state college team is its powerful line, against which the university could not stand,” wrote the Pittsburgh Press.
The Press’ coverage gushed over the visitors’ treatment as well. “The 'Varsity Boys Were Royally Entertained Yesterday," a headline read. The story further suggested that the teams hoped to meet again.
“The Western University football team returned from Bellefonte last night loud in their praises of the royal treatment accorded them by the state college boys,” the Press wrote.
Rivalry turns ugly: All that ended three years later, when WUP returned to Penn State for a fierce meeting that is considered the rivalry’s proper start. George Hoskins, Penn State’s coach from 1892-1895, took over at Pitt in 1896. His return was fractious.
Author Lou Prato wrote in the Penn State Football Encyclopedia that the Penn State crowd booed Hoskins, several fights broke out and "before the game finally ended, Hoskins had instigated another of his all out brawls.” Penn State got the last word with a 10-4 victory.
But the teams always will have 1893.
“We must compliment the players on the marked absence of slugging,” the Free Lance wrote. “Both the teams behaved like gentlemen and the most friendly relations existed between the players."